Friday, April 15, 2011

Links between character and place

     History and place are very much intertwined within Tolkien’s writings. The land itself seems to contain an imprint of people and events. For example, upon being woken by Bombadil, Merry exclaims, “...I remember! The men of Carn Dum came on us at night, and we were worsted.” And as the hobbits and Gandalf pass Weathertop on the way home to the Shire, Frodo feels a darkness overcome him and urges his companions to hasten away from under its’ shadow.
    Other places are named for the shadow that lurks there, for example Cirith Ungol, the spider’s pass. In it lurks Shelob, the last descendant of Ungoliant, the giant spider that destroyed the two trees of Valinor. Gandalf is dismayed by the news that Frodo and Sam have chosen this path in much the same way that Theoden and Company are taken aback upon learning that Aragorn has taken the Paths of the Dead. Places within Middle Earth also change names as they decay, Minas Ithil becoming Minas Morgul, Greenwood the Great into Mirkwood, but also as they change in response to the growing presence of darkness in the world, such as Minas Anor becoming Minas Tirith, and Laurelindorenan becoming Lothlorien. The names of places are much more powerful in Middle Earth than in today’s world, perhaps because every place we visit does not have a well-known history spanning the ages. This also extends to aspects other than names, it is mentioned that both the pit of orcs at Helm’s Deep and the sit of the burning of the winged steed of the Nazgul remained forevermore bare of grass, while the burial mound of Snowmane, Theoden’s horse, is always covered in green grass.
    This linking of history and place I think is a big reason why I enjoy the books so much. I am very interested in the history of places, and, more specifically, places that have history. For example, I chose a dorm with a hundred years of history over a brand new dorm simply because the older one had more history. Living in a place that has had so many previous occupants is a real joy; you can almost feel the impact of history in each room. I can imagine that living in Tolkien’s world would be much the same, but with thousands of years of history instead of a hundred.
      This linkage also appears in the connection between the characters and the lands they travel; this depth to the story has the characters always looking back on the past as we venture forward into Middle Earth, and this also causes an air of sentimentality that is prevalent thoughout the story. As Aragorn sings the Lay of Leithian, recounting the story of the meeting of his distant ancestors,  also mirrors the meeting of himself and his future wife Arwen, he sits near the site of Amon Sul (Weathertop), a principal garrison of the former Kingdom of Arnor, which he is destined to inherit the ruling of. For Aragorn, his history is deeply linked to the land, and he is deeply reverent to many sites, from Cerin Amroth, where Aragorn pledged to marry Arwen, to the pillars of the Argonath, marking the ancient bounds of the kingdom of Gondor. These episodes, to me at least, highlight Aragorn as not just a traveler to these places, but an integral part of them.
    The preponderance of long-lived characters likely heightens the use of sentimentality by them. Many lament the many pains they have witnessed, and talk of all that has been lost, e.g. Galadriel, Treebeard, et al. Treebeard in particular bemoans the shrinking of the great forest of Eriador and the loss of the Ent Wives after the destruction of their gardens. Tom Bombadil is a notable exception to this sentimentality; while he does reminisce about the many events that have surrounded his land, it is never in a tone of longing. It is likely that, in much the same way the Ring had no power over him, the memories of time past do not have the same effect on him as they do to others, and that he is truly the “Master” of his emotions as well as of his little land.
     This long spanning connection is painful to most other players in the story, such as Elrond, who have seen many things and people pass away over his tremendously long life., including the destruction of both Beleriand and Numenor, the latter partially bought about by the descendants of his brother. This is highlighted by Aragorn admonishing Bilbo for singing about Earendil while at Rivendell, as it is quite likely that the loss of his father to the heavens must surely have caused Elrond great pain, but brought much hope to Middle Earth with the rising of the star Gil-Estel.
     Extricating myself from Tolkien’s greater legendarium, and focusing on the events of the Lord of the Rings we see one who loses the most in the aftermath of the War of the Ring, Frodo. It is striking how Frodo reacts to life in the Shire after the Scouring. He, more than anyone else, was fighting solely to protect the place he loved. Despite this, after his return he slowly “falls out” of life in the Shire, fading into the shadows as Merry, Pippin and Sam develop large roles in Shire society. This fall, after having setting out on the quest of the Ring to save the Shire, is certainly in my mind the most poignant event in the trilogy. It’s poignancy strengthened, not because it is a magical land, like Rivendell or Lorien, but a place one can relate to, especially if they grew up in a rural area, as I did.


  1. The relationship between certain places in Middle Earth and ''the shadow" or evil has always fascinated me. The 'shadow' is a term that gets used in seemingly myriad ways. People talk about the shadow as a figurative term for Sauron, much like they use 'the enemy.' People say that the shadow is growing stronger, that the shadow is creeping back into Mirkwood, and many other uses. This seems to be a qualitatively different thing than what is going on in a place like Cirith Ungol or Minas Morgul. Th impression that I get from those places, or at last from the way that they effect the characters, is that there is some sort of actual shadow over them, that shrouds them in a darkness. It may not be a physical darkness, like the darkness that Sauron sends out over the world when he launches his assault on Gondor, but more of a shadow on the soul. What my questions is now is what the relation between the 'shadow' as symbol for servants of the enemy and the 'shadow' as physical or emotional instantiation of evil in a place. Are these always necessarily connected? Are there places where one form of the shadow has reached but not another? Or does anywhere where the black tongue is spoken habitually take on the air of malice that is the real meaning of shadow?

    I don't know.


  2. I think you’re on to something here. The intimacy with place, the evocative power of place across time, the specificity of place and its metamorphoses, all come into play in Tolkien’s thought-world. It creates an unexpected power to explore the universe and keep it in balance with resonances of local origin. I suppose that this may be something that “Leaf by Niggle” is getting at too, with its reciprocity between the detail and the whole, in a way that all details contain the whole. We might say in this case that every event contains implicitly the whole of events. In fact this seems to be like what Tolkien did himself, or thought of history as having the potential to do. Every datum had to unpacked, in an effort to detect the outlines of the original narrative whose vestiges it preserves. As you say, the magic of the story is not because its content is magical, like Rivendell’s. But is it possible that there is a kind of magic in the very intense relation to place that you describe? As a side note, there is definitely a nostalgic melancholy in parts of LotR, as you note of the end (I wouldn’t quite call it sentimentality). It reminds me of the disconcerting lines that conclude King Lear: “The oldest hath borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” The principal actors, the heroes, must vanish in the end, because the age itself is at an end. Is it equally possible to see the magic of place as created by snapping a formerly close relation to that place?
    JT (standing in for CJ)

  3. Beautifully put! Yes, it is not just that Tolkien liked naming features of geography, as it were: places have names because they are associated with the events that happened there; likewise, traveling through the landscape so named is a journey through history as much as through space. I particularly liked the way you described Aragorn's association with story and place in his retelling of the Lay of Leithian. Nicely observed!


  4. You’re very right in pointing out the poignancy of the fall of Frodo, because in the joy of the aftermath this is overlooked. As you emphasized, as readers we tend not to focus enough on this happening but just to add to that, I think it’s even more striking that the characters in the book sort of overlook it as well. Sam is definitely crushed to learn that Frodo will l be leaving The Shire and going to Valinor, yet there seems to be an inadequacy in which the psychological and emotional impact the quest had on Frodo. As the ring-bearer, it was expected that the possession and loss of the ring would affect Frodo the most and therefore his inability to adjust to Shire life is not that surprising. However, it is extremely intriguing and as the protagonist, it is rather frustrating that Tolkien isolates us from him and his thoughts, almost reflecting Frodo’s own isolation from everyone in the story.

    I never left LOTR feeling happy. I always left more with a sense of relief. And now I’ve finally realized why. The end raises the rather compelling question of sacrifice. Frodo was never the same after the quest; he was lost with the loss of the ring. The joy of success is thus inevitably infused with an element of sadness—the fall of evil was also the fall of Frodo.